Friday, February 11, 2011

Cricket's wicked turn

'For once it has shown b**ls,' a former player I met at a promotional event last week in Mumbai said of the International Cricket Council's (ICC) decision to ban Pakistan's tainted trio of Salman Butt, Mohammed Asif and Mohammed Aamer. Allowing for the mild profanity, the statement expresses the anguish over the malaise of match-fixing.

Whether the ICC's current tough stance is a deterrent to cheats, however, is open to question. Its Anti Corruption Unit (ACU) has been largely perfunctory, if not ceremonial. Moreover, as a loose federal structure, the ICC is often at odds with some of the more powerful cricket boards, and fails to be truly effective in its governance, especially in matters of corruption.

Indeed, major detection of match-fixing in cricket has come either fortuitously — Hansie Cronje was trapped in 2000 when the Delhi police were tapping the phone of a bookie — or through media vigilantism, as in the sting operation carried out by News of The World in the case of Butt, Asif and Aamer last year.

Incidentally, the aforementioned promotional event was a corporate initiative, deploying six former World Cup winning captains — Clive Lloyd, Allan Border, Kapil Dev, Imran Khan, Arjuna Ranatunga and Steve Waugh — with 'Keep Cricket Clean' as its charter. This was laudable, but Imran Khan was candid enough to confess that spot-fixing is almost impossible to control, if not self-willed.

"Even I cannot say whether a player is up to any hanky-panky," said Khan. If those who have played the game at the highest level are so befuddled, if the ACU, usually headed by a former top sleuth from Scotland Yard remains clueless, what is the scope for anybody else?

The need for an integrated approach in which detection is facilitated and punishment swiftly delivered is becoming cricket's biggest challenge, more so in these vexing times of spot-fixing. The best way would seem that the systems of detection are efficiently structured and operational at the glocal — global and local — rather than just global level.

Local and junior levels become crucial in this endeavour. It is now evident that the malaise of fixing and spot-betting in Pakistan cricket is perhaps institutionalised, even at the domestic level. The namby-pamby governance of the Pakistan board for several years has only aggravated matters.

However, it is also well-known that this problem is not peculiar to any one team or country. It is also true that corruption at the highest level is helped by bad practices that go unchecked at the formative stages. It could be as harmless as fudging age, which is commonplace in the subcontinent.

Cheating in sport is hardly new and can find various expressions, but always with greed — for fame, glory or money — at its core. It is an extravagant rationalisation to believe that only those from underprivileged backgrounds are susceptible to corruption, as has been said in the (weak) defence of Mohammed Aamer.

Last year, John Higgins, the world's top snooker player and a multi-millionaire, was alleged to have agreed to fix a game in a World Series event in Ukraine for a relatively paltry sum of £261,000. Cronje, who became the face of match-fixing in cricket, belonged to the upper-middle class and from a strong religious background.

Sport today is big business and integrates the good and evil of other businesses. The corporate world is replete with stories of millionaire promoters and executives who will risk everything for a few dollars more for themselves or their corporations by breaking laws. So sport must be treated similarly where checks, balances, detection and punishment of mala fide action is concerned. It might seem alarmist but robust vigilantism from federations, coaches, the media, watchdog bodies — indeed all quarters — are needed.

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